An interview with writer Donald G. Westlake

What inspired you to write A Life of Death?

DGW: At a time early in my retirement years, I was writing narrative verses of recollections from my childhood. It seemed that every memory sparked several others. One that came flashing back was my litte brother's reaction to pictures we saw in the newspaper when the Italians invaded Ethiopia. I was seven years old, and he was three. He began to have nightmares that would awaken us both because we slept in the same bed. I would try to comfort him and assure him that the war was far away, and we would not be affected. As I began to compose a poem about that recollection, it occurred to me that my "brothers" here at home and all around the world had been affected in horrible ways by continuous war in my lifetime. Although I had not been born at the time of World War I, my playmates and I were affected by it, because many of their fathers had fought in that war and had artifacts of the war in their homes. Some had scars or health problems resulting from the war. That is why my "A Life of Death" begins with World War I, The Great War, "The War to End All Wars."

Don Westlake

How do you go about writing your poems?
Do verses come to you as a reaction to reading other types of writing (prose or periodical, for example) or experiencing something in life?

DGW: Inspiration for a poem may come in any number of ways. For example, in 1988, I wrote a poem called "Ethiopia" after seeing TV pictures of whole families starving while undistributed food was piling up at the docks. I've written many limericks as spoofs of the foibles of politicians. My poems "The Prairie Path" and "Herrick Lake in Autumn" are attempts to describe my perceptions and appreciation of natural beauty. My children's poems are often plays on words that amuse me, if no one else.

What other writing do you do?

DGW: As a materials scientist, I wrote or co-authored more than 120 papers published in technical journals. As a retiree, I turned my writing of prose to political matters -- often corresponding with legislators and newspaper editors. But, I also became deeply interested in my wife's areas of expertise -- relationships and family living, parenting, and child development. In the early 1990s, we were co-authors of two high school textbooks on these subjects.

How did you go from working in a scientific field to writing poetry?

DGW: Shortly after I retired from Argonne National Laboratory I rode my bike to Herrick Lake on a beautiful Fall day. The colors were magnificent, and I felt an urge to describe for others what I was witnessing. So, the next day I returned with a pen and pad of paper. To my surprise, the description began flowing as rhyming verse. In less than an hour, it seemed complete. The experience was so pleasurable, I decided to continue and, for the next two years, I was writing from morning to night.

Did you get any training in writing poetry before you began?

DGW: I had no training in poetry before I began. After about two years of writing, I took one course in poetry appreciation and another in poetry writing at the College of DuPage (near Chicago, IL).

Do you have a favorite poet or poets? What about their writing inspires you?

DGW: I enjoy the simplicity and hominess of James Whitcomb Riley. Having seen Carl Sandburg perform, I visualize his face and hear his voice when I read from his excellent book Honey and Salt. The same can be said about Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks, whose messages are compelling. I find Maya Angelou's personal story inspiring.

Do you find it personally cathartic to write poetry?

DGW: For me, writing a poem is similar to working on a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle. Foremost is the message, but it must be told in words that provide precise meanings, descriptive sounds, meter, brevity and, perhaps, rhyme. I think that no poet has ever felt he/she has been able to create a perfect poem -- even publication does not end the editing. Nevertheless, getting it nearly right provides immense satisfaction. And, when a poem is meant to express a deeply-held belief, and I sense that I've accomplished the goal, it is indeed cathartic.

Don Westlake in Basic Training

How did this filmic version of your poem come about?

DGW: (he laughs) I will leave that answer to my daughter!
Dawn Westlake: My husband had just gotten home from a 3.5-month stint in Kuwait and Iraq covering the war as a producer for CBS News, and we were so happy to be together again, but also so conflicted about what the war had meant…what exactly had been “accomplished”, and lives were still being lost over there, although our government claimed the war was “over”. "A Life of Death" had always been my favorite of all my dad’s poems, and I thought making a film of it would be the perfect way to honor him, his work, and express what I was feeling while missing my husband: that this sad human cycle of war and revenge must end!

What do you hope this film will accomplish?

DGW: I am extremely pleased that my poem "A Life of Death" is being featured in a short film. I hope that everyone who sees it will recognize that war is GROSSLY expensive -- in human life, destruction, suffering, and grief. Truth, decency, and the environment are automatic victims of war. We have paid the price for lasting peace again, again, and again; but there is no peace. We must learn that the way to peace is not through war, but through the development of mutual respect. We must heed the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi: "Permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence."

cast and crew  synopsis  interview with the poet  festivals and awards  comments  director's comments  read the poem  home